News And Commentary – Noir Week (3): Out of the Past and Chinatown
Noir week at MCC reached its conclusion with the pitch-perfect classic Out of the Past – one for the time capsule if you were looking to preserve the essence of noir for future generations – before wrapping up class with a consideration of neo-noir, and a very close read of Chinatown. (In Hollywood’s Last Golden Age I called Chinatown “the Citizen Kane of the Seventies,” and I’m sticking with my story.)
Out of the Past: the title sets the mood—all fatalism and destiny. Like the eerily passive, doomed Burt Lancaster in The Killers (“I made a mistake . . . once”), Robert Mitchum, a decent guy making ends meet in an idyllic corner of picket fence Americana, has a dark past that he can try and hide from, but ultimately can’t outrun. A confusing and complex (but airtight) plot, told in part, inevitably, in flashback, finds Mitchum fulfilling a debt of honor to a notorious gangster (Kirk Douglas, flashing serious star power in his second movie role). In the centerpiece of the film (twenty three delirious minutes of scheming and double-crosses over the course of a long and shadowy San Francisco night) Mitchum walks knowingly into a set-up and slips his way out of it.
But that will only get him so far. As Roger Ebert observed, “Mitchum and Douglas think the story involves a contest of wills between them, when in fact, they’re both the instruments of corrupt women.” (In particular, but not exclusively, Jane Greer.) And they haven’t got a chance. It doesn’t end well, for any of them.
Out of the Past
Out of the Past
Out of the Past, like so many of the great noir classics, was dark, pessimistic, cynical—and subversive. No wonder a generation of New Hollywood film-makers loved noir so much. As Paul Schrader wrote in 1972, “American movies are again taking a look at the underside of the American character, but compared to such relentlessly cynical films noir,” the “new self-hate cinema . . . seems naïve and romantic.” Revisiting noir, then, presented a challenge to the seventies film: how do you subvert something that was already subversive, spray-painting revisionism across movies that already left their heroes beaten and empty-handed? How could the world get much worse?
The New Hollywood found a way. In the seventies, neo-noir got even darker, by taking away that last glimmer of hope the forties held out: that, yes, the world might be a cold, dark, unforgiving place—but guys like Bogie might be able to make small corners of it just a bit better.
Three great seventies neo-noirs – Night Moves, The Long Goodbye, and Chinatown – took distinct approaches to tearing this down. Night Movies (Arthur Penn, written by Alan Sharp), played it straight, observing an old-school, solve-the-crime, word-is-my-bond private-eye splashing around unhappily in the shallow 1970s. Harry Moseby (Gene Hackman), famous tracer-of-missing-persons, is pretty good at connecting the dots—but he misses the big picture. Unlike Sam Spade, he doesn’t see through the game. He plays something else, and he loses. And he regrets it, for the rest of his life.
The Long Goodbye and Chinatown make the point even more explicit: Bogart isn’t here anymore, and maybe he never was. Robert Altman’s Long Goodbye (like The Big Sleep, based on a Chandler novel and with a screenplay by Leigh Brackett) imagines Philip Marlowe (Elliot Gould) as if he was cryogenically frozen in the 1940s and brought back to life, to see what might happen. It isn’t pretty. Unlike Bogie’s Phillip Marlowe, Gould is, unthinkably, always one step behind the cops, not one step ahead. Worse still, although he remains a “right guy,” turns out there are very few other right guys still around, and the broken code slips like sand through his fingers. “The one thing” we left Marlowe with “was his faith that a friend’s a friend,” Brackett recalled. But in the seventies that faith was misplaced. “The greatest crime that could be committed against Philip Marlowe,” Altman noted, explaining his purpose with the film, “is that his friend broke faith with him.”
But wait, it gets worse. Gould knows he’s Philip Marlowe, if stuck in the seventies; Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson), back in the 1930s, thinks he’s Sam Spade, and thinks he’s in The Maltese Falcon. But he’s not—he’s in Chinatown (Roman Polanski, written by Robert Towne), and despite the similarities, there’s a big difference. In the penultimate scene of The Maltese Falcon, Bogie calls the cops, turns on his heel, shakes a confession out of the girl, and solves everything, neatly and in the nick of time. Near the very end of Chinatown, Nicholson calls the cops, and shakes a confession out the girl—but he had it all wrong. He does what the ill-fated Hollis Mulwray pledged not to do, in the very first reel of the film: he makes the same mistake twice. Just like he did as a cop on the beat, he doesn’t save someone from being hurt, everything he does ends up “making sure that they were hurt.” It’s the seventies out there. And so Noah Cross (John Huston, who wrote and directed Falcon) commits the most horrible crimes imaginable, and walks away with it all.
The Maltese Falcon: Spade shakes out the truth and unmasks the femme fatale
Chinatown: Gittes shakes out the truth and reveals his catastrophic misunderstanding of it all